Reading guide for A Day Late and A Dollar Short by Terry McMillan

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A Day Late and A Dollar Short

by Terry McMillan

A Day Late and A Dollar Short by Terry McMillan X
A Day Late and A Dollar Short by Terry McMillan
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2001, 448 pages

    Dec 2001, 480 pages


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Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!


"One thing I do know about men and kids is that they always come back. They may be a day late and a dollar short, but they always come back." –Viola, A Day Late and A Dollar Short

When Viola Price returns home from the hospital after a near fatal asthma attack, she comes to an important realization: she may not survive the next one. While keeping her fears a secret from everyone but her best friend, Loretta, Viola shapes a plan for bringing her family—on the verge of breaking apart from numerous petty squabbles and insecurities—together as a supportive, loving unit. Doing so will prove no easy task but one that Viola, who asserts "it's my job to meddle," is more than equipped to tackle. Over the course of the next few months, Viola records her observations and advice to each of them. Meanwhile, Cecil and her four children struggle with the various roles as parents, children, and individuals. Terry McMillan lets each Price speak out in his or her own voice and, in so doing, opens a window onto their respective strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears.

Lewis, the only son, carries what is, perhaps, the heaviest burden. Sexually abused as a child and suffering from the early onset of arthritis, Lewis—when he's not in jail—seeks solace in the bottle and the easy affections of women. "Sometimes I wish I'da been born white," he laments. "Things probably would'a been a helluva lot easier." But his alcohol-ravaged health, the needs of his son, Jamil, and Viola's illness are on a collision course that he'll need more than crossword puzzle skills and a martyr's attitude to survive.

As the youngest child, Janelle is not accustomed to figuring things out on her own. "She always being led out to some pasture and don't know how she got there," complains Viola. And so, when she stumbles upon her daughter, Shanice, being sexually molested by her second husband, George, she reacts the only way she knows how, "I should kill him. But I don't move." More engaged with her elaborate holiday decorations than her family, Janelle is shocked into virtual paralysis, unable to respond to the situation. She is then confronted by the realization that she must do the one thing she has always found a way to avoid: act on her own, without a man's guidance.

Second-born Charlotte's geographical distance from the rest of the Prices is metaphorical for the wide moat of hostility that separates her from them. She even refuses—can't and won't are identical concepts in Charlotte's logic—to visit when Viola is first hospitalized. The deep and abiding anger that prevents Charlotte from seeing Viola also threatens to permanently alienate her from her siblings and destroy her marriage to her loving husband, Al. She's proud of the fact that she has no confidantes: "I only tell people what I want them to know," she boasts but, like her house, Charlotte might "look good on the outside, but on the inside, its falling apart."

Paris is the quintessential eldest child and a source of both pride and envy within the Price family. She has worked hard for her nice home, doting son, and thriving career but, while her comfortable financial position allows her to help Viola, it draws her less affluent siblings' resentment. And her "I believe when you make a promise, you should keep it" philosophy neither offers nor invites empathy for human weakness. Yet, Paris' own weaknesses grow exponentially with her responsibilities and success. Her increasing dependence on painkillers exaggerates her carefully cultivated emotional detachment—and both are about to disrupt her facade of control.

Alternating and juxtaposing their stories, McMillan weaves together the delicate threads of family that are constantly strained by sibling rivalry and everyday strife but, fortified by Viola, are strong enough to endure the weight of sexual abuse and substance addiction.

Lewis, Janelle, Charlotte, and Paris all have very definite opinions about their siblings but few of them are positive. It is through Viola that they discover a place where they can release the past and see one another and themselves afresh. Viola also helps her beloved but estranged husband, Cecil, become both the father that her children are going to need and a man willing to shoulder the coming responsibilities of his new family. Viola knows one thing about men and kids, "they always come back." And, certainly Cecil and the Price children do unite, at last, but largely through their shared love and respect for the indomitable, unforgettable Viola.

As Paris ultimately realizes the incalculable and priceless value of Viola's love, she reflects, "our history, our lives together as a family, and after looking at our mother and father, I think we . . . realize where we came from and who we are."

Discussion Questions

  1. Of all the siblings, who had the toughest time growing up? Or did they all start out with more or less the same advantages and disadvantages?
  2. Sexual abuse is a very harsh reality that both Lewis and Shanice suffered. What do you think Janelle can do to prevent the experience from further damaging Shanice?

  3. Are there parallels between Janelle's relationship with George and Brenda's relationship with Cecil?

  4. Lewis picks up lady friends easily and relies heavily upon them when he gets into trouble. To what extent is this a result of his being brought up amidst so many women?

  5. Viola and Charlotte share the same birthday, a coincidence that they insist debunks the claims of astrology. Are their personalities completely different or are there characteristics that they share?

  6. Paris has a very tolerant attitude about her son's sexual activity. Would she have been as liberal about contraception and abortion if Dingus had been a girl?

  7. Viola doesn't have an affectionate or close relationship with either of her sisters. How does this play into her hopes for her own children and grandchildren?

  8. Do you agree with Dr. Greene's assessment that Al was justified in hiding the existence of his illegitimate son from Charlotte? Why or why not?

  9. Alcohol and drug addiction play a prominent role in the Price childrens' problems. Could the family have done more to help Lewis face up to his alcoholism and Paris, her Vicadin addiction?

  10. Would Charlotte have been able to address her anger if she hadn't won the lottery?

  11. Cecil claims to love Viola, even when he leaves her for Brenda. How "real" is Cecil's love? How do you feel about Viola's supportive attitude towards Cecil's relationship with Brenda?

  12. In light of the turmoil each of her children is still in at the time of Viola's death, what do you think about the novel's title?

For more information about other Penguin Readers Guides, please call the Penguin Marketing Department at (800) 778-6425, email at or write to us at: Penguin Books, Marketing Department, Readers' Guides, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014-3657.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Signet Classics. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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